Charles Bock’s novel Alice & Oliver draws on a tragic and harrowing real-life experience: the death of the author’s wife from leukemia, after chemotherapy and two bone marrow transplants, in 2011. It’s a dramatic and painful story, and simply writing down what happened would have been enough. But Bock thinks like a novelist, with the novelist’s conviction that fiction can be truer than truth. In order to capture what was most essential, Bock says, he had to make things up.
In our conversation for this series, Bock recalled a formative reading experience—his unexpectedly intense reaction to Crime and Punishment in high school. When the opening of Dostoyevsky’s novel hit unnervingly close to home, Bock started to recognize the power of fiction to conjure familiar reality from invented details.
On the surface, Alice & Oliver mirrors Bock’s own life: A cancer diagnosis intrudes on the happiness of a New York City couple and their infant daughter. But you sense the author learned more from his experience than the bare facts could ever explain. Not just about how illness degrades the body and terrifies the spirit, or how medical bureaucracies strip the dignity from suffering: This is a book about how people rise to the messy, heroic occasion of providing care and being cared for—how those roles shame, ennoble, and otherwise transform us.
Charles Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications like Harper’s, Slate, and The New York Times. His first wife’s name was Diana Joy Colbert, and New York City’s literary community rallied to help cover her tremendous medical costs. Bock spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Charles Bock: We got assigned Crime and Punishment in 10th grade, in the advanced English class. I remember the teacher, but I can’t remember her name. She was a lovely person, a little bit older—she used to laugh a lot. I fell asleep at my desk, once, and she slammed a book next to my head to wake me up. Don’t ever fall asleep in my class again, she said.
This was at my high school in Las Vegas, where I was having a miserable experience. I was not a happy or popular or happy-with-myself kid, and I wasn’t an especially motivated student either. In English, I never did the reading when it was assigned. If a paper was due on Friday, my attitude was: read half the book on Tuesday, the second half on Wednesday, and write the paper Thursday night. Sometimes, I’d just read the Cliff’s Notes and skip the book altogether. Every now and then, I’d read the summary and think, “Oh, that sounds pretty good. Maybe this is something I should come back to.”
As usual, I hadn’t done the reading when we started discussing Crime and Punishment.
Then the teacher mentioned that the main character was going to rob a pawnbroker.
My grandfather was a pawnbroker, and when I was in first or second grade my parents opened their own store. I probably learned to count by putting pawn tickets in numerical order in the back room of the shop. We’d do our homework back there. It was just part of our lives. In 10th grade, I would have been going downtown every day after school, to help my parents close the store.
So that detail really hit home—but it was more than that. Because when I was in seventh grade, my grandfather’s store had been robbed. I’d actually been called out of class and taken to the hospital to see him. These two guys had come inside and pistol-whipped him. There was this huge fight, and they robbed the place. The story led the local evening newscasts. I remember tuning in on the TV to see his store, all the showcases shattered. It was a huge event, hugely scary for me.
So 10th grade, Crime and Punishment. After school, I started reading along with the class for the first time.
It got even weirder, because the pawnbroker Raskolnikov murders is a gruff woman. She reminded me a little of my mother. I think of my mom as a very kind person, but she never wanted to be a pawnbroker. She used to say, Don’t tell people what we do. She always said, Tell people your parents are in sales. She didn’t want people to judge us, I guess. In any case, she wasn’t really suited for it. She was a nervous person who could get upset easily, and she didn’t enjoy being down there. She could really not be easy with the customers.
So as Dostoyevsky presented this woman, who acts gruffly towards Raskolnikov and treats him with suspicion, it was not too hard to see the parallels—and that made me feel kind of sick. It was so much like what I knew. And in that familiar setting, the worst nightmare takes place.
The murder is so clearly and so cleanly described:
He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. He seemed not to use his own strength in this. But as soon as he had once brought the axe down, his strength returned to him.
The old woman was as always bareheaded. Her thin, light hair, streaked with grey, thickly smeared with grease, was plaited in a rat’s tail and fastened by a broken horn comb which stood out on the nape of her neck. As she was so short, the blow fell on the very top of her skull. She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank all of a heap on the floor, raising her hands to her head. In one hand she still held “the pledge.” Then he dealt her another and another blow with the blunt side and on the same spot. The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back. He stepped back, let it fall, and at once bent over her face; she was dead.
Dostoyevsky is fairly bloodless about this. There’s no melodrama—it’s very plain description. One thing that was strange to me, back then, was that we actually care about Raskolnikov. We want him to get away with murder. I could tell, even then, that the whole point of the book is that you want him to get away this, that you’re rooting for him.
But how was I supposed to do that?
Other sections of the book also got to me—especially the fact that, after killing and robbing the woman, Raskolnikov returns home and goes to sleep. That, I understood: It’s what I do all the time. When I was fifteen and had my learner’s permit, I drove my dad’s car into a wall. Afterwards, I went home and got in bed and tried to hide. It’s what I still do, even now, after any failure or bad thing—when my teeth hurt, or I’m trying to figure something out, or I’m at an impasse in my work, one of the things I do is take a nap. I consider myself one of the world’s great nappers. I’ll set my alarm for ten minutes, and I’m not sure if I fall asleep or not, but I sit there thinking and relax.
To see that someone knew the human condition this deeply. I remember thinking, how does Dostoyevsky know I do this? It had a profound effect on me. The writer of this book had somehow created intimate connections between my life in Las Vegas and 19th-century Russia. I understood, for the first time, that there is a deeper truth going on in fiction. I don’t think it changed my everyday malaise, or my lostness. That wasn’t going to change for a long time. But, I do think some larger doors started to open—in my understanding of what people can know, of what literature might be.
I always love those little moments when a writer really gets the psychological processes right, especially if they can surprise me with it. But how to write those moments that ring true? I wish there was for me, or for anyone, a blanket answer. Making imagined things seem real isn’t a straightforward process, and it probably happens different ways for different people. We come at truth from so many different ways.
Something I found while writing Alice & Oliver—a book that is unquestionably a work of fiction, but which also borrows details from my own life—is that writing the truth often requires invention and imagination. In order to make the “real” details seem real, I needed to work off them, and make stuff up.
There’s a section of the book, for example, where Alice effectively goes blind. A side effect of the chemo has made her eyes very sensitive to light, and as a result she can’t really see. And yet, somehow, she comes to terms with this new reality. That section was based on something that happened to Diana, who suffered the same kind of temporary almost-blindness. I bought her sunglasses from CVS, and we kept the lights low, and people would visit her. At some point, I know she felt: I can exist like this. I think she may have said it to a very good friend. In the novel, Alice arrives at the same feeling of acceptance.
In the book, that section is followed directly by a scene that shows a change of heart: When Oliver comes home, Alice tells him, “Get out while you can.” She’s had a great epiphany—but it passes, and three hours later, she’s still stuck, and she still can’t see, and all the hope seeps out of her. That also really happened. I came home from running errands, or getting stuff for her, or taking care of Lily, to find Diana sitting alone in the darkness. That’s what she said: “Get out while you can.”
In fiction, the question was: How do I build up to the crescendo of “I can live like this”? What kind of scenes can I write to make that moment convincing when it comes? In the novel, it ended up being a fictionalized scene that involved Alice’s mother making soup for her, and Alice tasting the soup and concentrating on each ingredient, isolating each particular taste—it’s about finding ways to appreciate even a very small moment. It’s a section that speaks to Alice’s optimism, to her generosity, to her life spirit. And yet I knew I had to juxtapose it against Oliver coming home and her saying to him, “Get out while you can.”
Those two events didn’t follow one another closely in real life. But writing the novel, I knew to put them back to back. Somehow or other, both reactions both seemed right and very human; on the page, I think both are strengthened by the juxtaposition. Writing from life is often a matter of recognizing contradictions, and trying to work with them to capture the full human scope.
To write a really good memoir is a hard, admirable, amazing act. I have huge admiration for people who can write about the most difficult experiences of their lives, and stay in it for 300 pages. I myself needed distance. The only way I was going to be able to tell this story was to fictionalize a lot. It was an impossibly hard thing to live through. It was an impossibly hard book to write.
But I needed to tell this story. This is what had filled my life. This is a person who was my life, someone I loved so much—a beautiful, wonderful person who a lot of people really cared for. There was no other story for me, but I couldn’t do it matchy-matchy. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write things exactly as they really were. If I wrote this story as a memoir, it would be however many pages of me cursing at medical insurance people, or me cursing at hospital people. It was such a miserable, miserable time—such a stressful, hard time.
That wasn’t what I wanted this book to be. If I was going to write about this experience, I knew it had to be a beautiful book, one filled with love and filled with questions: How do we care for one other? What do we owe ourselves, and what do we owe other people? The larger emotional truths I think are what I really want to come away with, and what I hope will compel readers to go on this journey.
Fiction gave me the freedom to create, which allowed me to get at the parts of this experience that mattered most. The days, in general, were very bleak, full of anguish and frustration—but there was also more than that. When Diana was home, we did somehow get our child to bed. We did sing our child songs. Afterwards, I’d get her onto the couch, and if she wanted to watch Top Chef, we’d sit there and make jokes about food. There’s still so much love and life in these things, and I think that the book tries very hard to latch onto that: the hope in the help that people bring to one another.